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Celebrity Drive: Actor and Veteran J.R. Martinez

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 8/8/2014 K.S. Wang

Quick Stats: J.R. Martinez, actor, author, motivational speaker
Daily driver: 2012 Jaguar XJ (J.R.’s rating: 7 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Other cars: see below
Favorite road trip: to Montana
Car he learned to drive in: 1980s Ford Escort
First car bought: 1996 Nissan Maxima

The last few years have been a whirlwind for J.R. Martinez. He was one of People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People in 2011; hosted his own radio show on KFI; was the “Dancing With the Stars” champion; and in 2012, his book, “Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength and Spirit,” appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. The memoir talks about his 2003 deployment to Iraq, where the Humvee he was driving hit a roadside bomb, causing severe burns on 34 percent of his body.

Since suffering those injuries , Martinez has become a motivational speaker and an actor in the syndicated TV series “SAF3,” which films in South Africa.

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez That means Martinez is on the road a lot, so he doesn’t want a car that causes a lot of problems. In 2012 he bought a white Jaguar XJ, and initially he did have a few problems.

“It was love at first sight, but then the first couple days were really rough,” he says of the Jaguar. “Now we figured each other out and now we’re having a good relationship.”

There were issues with a speaker, a sensor, and the sunroof when he first bought the car, which is why he gives it a 7 out of 10 rating. “I love the look of the car; I love the pick-up it has; I love the sound,” Martinez says. “I had to take it back in. It was frustrating for me. When I bought the car, I was on the road easily 290 days out of the year, so when I was home, that’s the last thing I want to do is to keep driving to the dealership, get a rental, drive back. I had to do this several times for that sensor and then the sunroof shade. It didn’t open up properly.”

At the time Martinez had a Denali and he wanted a car roomy enough that he could drive people around, and the XJ fit his needs. He also looked at the Jaguar XF, but preferred the XJ’s interior.

“The look in the interior of the XJ immediately put me in the place where it made me feel I was in a jet,” he says, with a laugh. “That little space that you’re in right there, and the look and the air vents. It looks really clean.”

Although he was looking for a more fuel-efficient car than the Denali, he fell in love the XJ. “I remember a couple of my friends said, fuel-wise it doesn’t fit into that requirement, but I liked it so much and I was willing to take the hit on the gas. It was a little bit better than my truck so I felt I was doing better at least.”

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez

1996 Nissan Maxima

Rating: 9
This blue Maxima was the first car Martinez bought and has a lot of sentimental value. “I was in high school when I got that car. I was a senior and it used to be gold.”

He customized it after he was in the hospital. “So when I was here in San Antonio, Texas, in the hospital where I recovered, I ended up meeting some guys that were part of a car club and had really cool custom cars,” he says. “I started to hang out with those guys and really got into the scene. It has a couple TVs in. The biggest thing is it has air bags, air suspension. When you drive, you pick it up at a certain height. It’s almost like hydraulics but not so extravagant, not so over the top.”

He can choose to drop the front right end or left end. “Air bags are more to lower the vehicle. Hydraulics are more to get height,” he says. “There are some trucks, dualies that are bagged and they sit flat on the ground. It’s more of a cool look.”

Martinez plans to keep the Maxima, which he bought used in 2006 and had for 10 years before buying a second ride. “I kept the car because it was my first car. It was the first car I paid off on my own. My Denali was the first car I bought on my own that was brand-new.”

Martinez’s hands were burned so badly after Iraq that he couldn’t make a fist, so he had to relearn how to hold the Maxima’s steering wheel.

“It was the car that when I joined military, it was with me. It was the car that when I learned how to drive again after I was injured, that was the car that I learned how to drive in again,” he says. “It was the car that when I was here in San Antonio, Texas, and I had my independence and was getting out into the world, that was the car that I was driving. It’s a deeper connection than just saying, ‘Oh that’s my car.’ It’s almost like the way you would look at your kid. That’s just my kid. I love my kid and that’s the same way I feel about my car. I just love my car.”

Martinez has many other memories, including driving to his high school prom and other dances in the Maxima. It cost about $8000 and he paid it off when he was 20 and had joined the military.

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez

Car he learned to drive in

Martinez was born in Louisiana. His family moved to Hope, Arkansas, but when they went back to Louisiana visit, his mom let him drive her green 1980s Ford Escort.

“This was back in the early ‘90s. I was 11 years old. We’d be out in the middle of nowhere in the field and she let me drive around and just get experience. My mom was scraping to get by; it was definitely an older car when she got the car. The car I really got good driving in was a Dodge minivan. I used to roll around town, cruise around in my mom’s white Dodge minivan and I was the coolest thing in town,” he says, laughing.

The mid-1990s minivan was white and had red stripes and Martinez liked it because he could pile his friends in it during summer break and they would go to their high school and play basketball or lift weights. “I was the only one with the car. I didn’t grow up in the nicest area and a lot of kids weren’t that fortunate,” he says. “I didn’t have my own car, but my mom trusted me enough to be a good driver and she allowed me to take the car from time to time.”

His mom worked graveyard shift at the local Tyson Foods plant and she let him drive it when she got home from work.

“There was this one time when I got into an accident and I had to hide it from my mom. I was at a stop sign and looked both ways but when I started to go, I guess I didn’t look good enough one way and all of a sudden this guy comes out of nowhere and I hit the back end of his car,” he says. “I was only going five miles an hour, but nicked him enough where the bumper of the minivan fell off. I remember getting out of the car and I was sweating, and he said, ‘Well, nothing’s wrong with my car,’ and he went about his business.”

As a supervisor at Tyson Foods, his mom used to put red tape on chicken that wasn’t up to standards. “She had all her supplies in the van, so the only thing I could figure out was to take some of her red tape and tape the bumper back to the van, through the bottom of the van,” he says. “The following morning my mom comes home and the bumper’s hanging half way down and she walked into the house with red tape in her hand and said, ‘What’s this?’” Although she was upset, she did get it fixed.

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez

Favorite road trip

“A few years ago a friend of mine works with a nonprofit that does a lot with wounded troops that returned from Iraq and Afghanistan ‘Operation Finally Home’ and they were going to build a home for a troop in Montana. One of my friends, who is a country music artist, told us years ago Montana is so beautiful. So we thought it would be cool to go, just to check it out,” he recalls.

Martinez had been to every state except Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota, so he and his girlfriend at the time, his daughter, and their dog met his friend in Las Vegas to head out to Kalispell, Montana.

“I had it planned that we were going to rent a Suburban XL. My girlfriend at the time, not even a week before, she puts this bug in my ear, she said, it would be cool if we got an RV. So I started calling all these RV companies,” he says. He called the RV rental place and was offered a 22-foot RV, but by the time they decided on it, it was already gone and so Martinez ended up renting a 32-foot RV.

“We drove straight through Utah and in Yellowstone, we had a couple days to check it out and drive through the park, and we drove to Montana,” he says. “It was amazing, every person in the car loved it. It was just a beautiful drive. It was a part of country that in a lot of ways doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it is just stunning to see. We’ve actually talked about doing the trip again.”

Martinez was initially worried because none of them had driven an RV before. “It was a little intimidating at first,” he says. “You’re driving this big thing on the highway, but we figured it out and we got there. At the end I was a pro. I actually parallel parked it on the street a few times.”

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez

“SAF3” on CW Network

Martinez is on the syndicated show “SAF3,” which is made by the creators of “Baywatch” and shoots in South Africa. It follows a fictional team of Southern California elite rescuers.

“You have beautiful girls and handsome guys, but they have stories and they have personal struggles,” he says. “The team is called SAF3 and it’s these individuals that are experts in sea, air, and land, and they go out and they save lives every single day. They’re considered the best of the best. It’s a great show and a fun show that I’m really excited I got an opportunity to be a part of.”

His character is a firefighter and in the first episode, they show how he got burned after saving a little girl. “You see him go through the progress of recovering and accepting and coming to the realization of his injuries and the scars that he’s going to have on his body,” he says.

His character gets back into saving lives and becomes a leader on the team. He appeared on the soap “All My Children” for three years before he was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”

Celebrity Drive J R Martinez© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive J R Martinez

Motivational speaking

When he’s not filming the TV series in South Africa, Martinez travels and inspires others with his personal story of perseverance.

“What I’ve learned through speaking is that although all of us have different paths we’ve traveled on, our stories can relate to each other. Our stories can help each other out,” he says. “We easily miss that from time to time in life, where we think you did this, you don’t understand what I’m going through. The one thing we all have in common is we all face adversity, we all have to persevere, we all have pain at some point in our lives.”

Martinez says speaking to others has allowed him to understand how his story can really connect with people. “It’s tough and it’s frustrating, but it has given me an amazing opportunity to be able to travel and see parts of the world that I never thought I would ever see. “Here I was just being a kid and living my life and all of a sudden I’ve become a speaker, I learned how to do it and I’ve fallen in love with it. You dream big but you don’t think that that’s the way it’s going to happen. At least I didn’t think so. It’s given me an amazing opportunity to travel.”

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